Bought to the Windy City by job prospects, the first wave of Mexican immigrants was made up of young, unskilled men who were promised permanent employment. In reality, Mexicans were rarely used for anything other than strikebreakers. When unions would go on strike, Mexicans, who were always looking for work, would be hired by steel or packing factories to break the unions. When the union workers and the company reached an agreement, the Mexican laborers would be let go (Padilla 24). It also didn’t help that Mexicans were paid the lowest wages meaning rarely could a family afford to refuse temp work (Padilla 25).
Since housing was cheap, crowded, and expensive, money was always in demand. Often times, these neighborhoods (with the exception of Pilsen) were already dominated by other immigrant groups who charged Mexicans higher rent for cheaper apartments. As such, Mexicans would often grouped together to pay the rent leading to a strain on the poor living conditions and, eventually, health problems (“Mexicans”).
But integration wasn’t impossible. Segregation for Mexicans was not as strict as it was for African Americans and Mexicans were often living together with eastern European groups. As the market expanded and women started moving to Chicago, Mexican culture moved past the local bars and barbers houses and started opening up local restaurants and social groups that asked for a membership fee and then aided families during unemployment. Newspapers were established like Mexica (later renamed El Nacional in 1930) a newspaper that still circulates. Similarly, the first Mexican Church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, was established in 1924 (“Mexicans”).
As women began taking more work outside of the house and brought the culture they learnt home. Slowly, a Mexican Chicagoan identity began to emerge Jazz music, dances, and movies entered the Mexican Chicago landscape as more and more people learned English through public school. Mexican culture moved past the boundaries of the city, following the railroad workers who moved with the track and the agricultural workers who followed the seasons up from Chicago and back down to Texas (“Mexico”).
During World WarI integration in the workplace started to seem possible thanks to labor shortages (Padilla 26). Still the work was unskilled, but there was long-term work to be found meaning more stable wages, which meant more disposable income. This was all undone during the Great Depression, of course.
During the Great Depression, people began blaming immigrants for the lack of work. Mexicans were fired and faced record high rates of unemployment (“Mexicans”). Welfare and Immigration offices started working together to round up and deport Mexican immigrants regardless of legal statues (Padilla, 26). Rather they targeted anyone who “looked Spanish” (“Mexicans”). As Ano Nuevo de Kerr, author of "Chicano Experiences in Chicago wrote, "Some left voluntarily...Others were forcibly deported, including families whose children had been born in the United States and were therefore eligible for relief and certainly would have been excluded from deportation in more prosperous times," (Padilla 27). It was called the Repatriation (Padilla 28).
In response, Mexicans created their own welfare groups that asked for a membership fee of $1 and then used that money to give aid and help people get medical attention: in 1928 as many as 32 organizations existed (Padilla, 28). But many of these organizations did not last because of internal financial problems (Padilla, 29). Local settlement houses opened up as community centers where people could organize dances, sporting events, and celebrate traditional holidays (Padilla, 30).
Still, by 1940, the Mexican population in Chicago had been reduced to half (“Mexicans”).
Things changed during World War II. Those who’d managed to stay were able to take advantage of the new opportunities. Labor unions for Mexican workers started thanks to the Wagner Act like the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Mexicans started to win better wages and working conditions while combating racism in the work force.
But the face of the work force was radically different. Made up of young, American-born Mexicans, Padilla referred to them as the first sightings of the Mexican-American identity (31). And thanks to the Braceros programs during WWII that brought Mexican workers into the US, new Mexican immigrants similar to the first Mexican Immigrants (young, unskilled men) began moving to Chicago (Padilla 31-32).
These young men experienced a few economic gains over the previous labor group. Wages increased and permanent jobs, something Mexicans had been struggling to find, became more common (Padilla 23). The major factors for these improvements were unions. Mexican workers began to join Unions in full. During the 1939-1940, Mexican workers joined with Eastern European workers to form the United Steel Workers Union. For the first time, Mexicans were being treated, as Kerr writes, “not as Mexicans but as American Industrail Workers,” (Padilla 34).
Despite these gains, Mexicans were still treated as lesser in comparison to their Italian and Polish counterparts despite often times being more educated. Padilla writes, “Mexicans workers as a whole lagged behind every ethnic group in the city.” In 1953, the Chicago Sun Times famously wrote “in all of Chicago there [were] 7 Mexican nurses, 5 teachers, 1 lawyer, 1 dentist, [and] 1 policeman,” (Padilla 33). As such, organizations that survived past the Great Depression made it their goal to aid Mexican Americans to “assimilate[e]…into the life of the larger American society,” (Padilla 35) Some of these programs were political. For the first time, Mexican Chicagoans had started to establish civil rights organizations alongside unions. Two of these organizations were the GI Forum, which focused on supporting Mexican Veterans of WWII, and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which focused on securing citizenship and other similar legal rights.
But despite these gains, Mexicans were still treated as lesser in comparison to their Italian and Polish counterparts despite often times being more educated. Padilla writes, “Mexicans workers as a whole lagged behind every ethnic group in the city.” In 1953, the Chicago Sun Times famously wrote “in all of Chicago there [were] 7 Mexican nurses, 5 teachers, 1 lawyer, 1 dentist, [and] 1 policeman,” (Padilla 33). As such, organizations that survived past the Great Depression made it their goal to aid Mexican Americans to “assimilate[e]…into the life of the larger American society,” (Padilla 35) Some of these programs were political. For the first time, Mexican Chicagoans had started to establish civil rights organizations alongside unions. Two of these organizations were the GI Forum, which focused on supporting Mexican Veterans of WWII, and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which focused on securing citizenship and other similar legal rights.
Unfortunately, this plan for assimilation did not include the immigrants settling in Chicago. Instead, it focused on those who had been born in the US, leaving the Mexican Americans isolated from the new immigrants and, in turn, many aspects of their heritage. As such, the new immigrants rarely felt the benefits of integration despite playing an incredibly important role in unions (Padilla 35-36). When the Braceros programs began to be viewed as less favorable after the war ended and Operation Wetback took place (Operation Wetback being a program that removed Mexican workers from the US) there was no organization in place to aid the Mexican immigrants either financially or legally (Padilla 36). There would be no push for support until the mid-1960s when the Braceros Programs would be officially over (Padilla 36-37).
By 1960, Chicago's primarily working-class Mexican community would reach about 56,000. These immigrants would be “fractured” thanks to differing languages (Spanish, English, and Spanglish) and citizenship/legal statues. It was also around this time that Puerto Ricans would be moving into the US in mass, diversifying the broader Latino identity. Inspired by the growing Chicano movement in America, Mexican Chicagoans would begin to invest in artist expressions, starting a mural movement in historically Mexican neighborhoods like Pilsen. In 1987 the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum opened. These artistic movements lead to an increase in Mexican Chicagoan visibility. More Mexicans joined the politics like Juan Velazquez, Linda Coronado, Danny Solis, and Rudy Lozano became driving forces in the integration of Mexicans today (“Mexican”). However, the struggle for citizenship and permanent, high paying employment that have plagued the Mexican community since they arrived in Chicago are factors that continued to be dealt with by the current generation.
To learn more about Puerto Rican history in Chicago, the various artistic expressions that define Mexican Chicagoan identity or the state of current day politics feel free to click on the following links bellow.
- Padilla, Felix M. Latino Ethnic Consciousness: The Case of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans in Chicago. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1985. Print.
- "Mexicans." Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society, 2005. Web. 16 Mar. 2016. <http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/824.html>.